A little over a century ago there was a movement swelling in Europe. On the back of social and technological advancements, the avant-garde Futurism Movement celebrated the speed and technological power that modernity had spawned. The car and plane were gaining popularity as modes of transportation, crowds were flocking to the cinema, cities were growing, and the speed to which life was experienced had increased rapidly. By our 21st century standards, the pace to which society interacted would seem to most, quite farcical. Nowadays, with even more growth and technological development, we seem to have less time than ever before. This perceived ‘shortage’ of time has led to self-evident changes in the way we view content. Cinemas and television sets are no longer the dominant viewing platform for film and TV series. More and more content is being viewed via the Internet. As talent spills from cinema to television, perhaps too this talent can pervade another rising medium: the web series.
With more creative avenues opening up for filmmakers and actors alike, along with a change in consumers viewing behaviour in the last decade or so, we have witnessed the web series become an increasingly popular medium for story telling. Sitting in a cinema quietly with one’s phone switched off to enjoy a movie is becoming harder and harder for the majority. With the increased use of mobile phones, a rise in Internet viewed films and series, and the lack of time in our day; we can no longer sit in a cinema for ninety minutes, cut off from the world. Fortunately, there is now a bite- sized solution to cater for our shifting needs. Husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld have created an acclaimed web series called High Maintenance for our time-constrained pleasure.
High Maintenance is a series of vignettes set in New York with each episode focusing on a different character. The binding thread is the character of a marijuana dealer, referred to simply as the Guy (Sinclair). Each episode runs between five and fifteen minutes, perfect for those with even the shortest attention span. And although I refer to them as episodes, they are really closer to short films in structure. There are some fantastic performances in the series from a range of talented character-actors. These cringe worthy characters elucidate the double entendre of the title. Not only is it almost necessary to smoke weed to maintain a level of sanity in this modern New York, it becomes obvious that many of the characters behaviour is also very high maintenance. The first episode, “Stevie,” (a hilarious in-episode reference to Stevie Nicks) of the series makes this painfully clear. An uptight, anxiety-ridden PA tries to buy pot for her boss. As it’s a first time ‘transaction’ for the PA, she wonders if it’s a “30 minutes or less situation”. She then berates the dealer for looking at all her prescription medication, comparing his speciality service to that of the guy who delivers her pad thai. When her boss sends her a message cancelling the order, she decides to smoke the pot with the dealer, becoming relaxed, almost normal.
With all the debate in the US currently circling the issue of marijuana legalization, High Maintenance couldn’t have come at a better time. The show may not be pro- weed; instead, it uses the transaction of marijuana as a means to explore human interaction and loneliness. For many people the only interaction they have is with their dealer (“Helen”) leading marijuana to become a type of medication. Whether a medication in terms of alleviating medical symptoms like anxiety (“Stevie”) and cancer (“Brad Pitts”); numbing the affects of trauma, perceived (“Jamie”) or real (“Jonathan”); or merely medicating against the triteness of everyday life (nearly every other episode), the series puffs new life into themes of alienation and loneliness with a wry sense of humour.
In our time-poor age, web series have created a niche for diminishing attention spans and new modes of viewing. High Maintenance serves as an antithesis to its form. The character of the Weed Delivery Guy is our tour guide through New York, allowing us to view these high maintenance characters through an outsider’s eye. Our pot-dealing protagonist is very much removed from the highly-strung world he inhabits. His only mode of transport is an old bicycle. As far as we know, his only source of income is selling pot, far removing him from the modern occupations the other characters have. Except for one episode, he remains the cool, calm voice of reason, juxtaposing the absurdity around him. In arguably the best episode, “Olivia”, our protagonist sells weed to an extremely irritating young couple (think Girls on crack). They are the type of characters you try and avoid at all costs. They’re number is saved as “Assholes” in the dealers phone. After they continually screw him around, the Weed Guy finally loses his cool and ‘blacklists’ them from his services. By punishing the couple, the dealer essentially denounces their behaviour and posits it as symptomatic of the modern world.
Whilst web series have been created for a modern age of connectivity and heightened agency, the very form to which High Maintenance adheres, the content explored within the series represents an antithesis to that form. In a post-Bloomberg city, the loneliness and disparity of the lives of many New Yorkers lead to these criminalised, self-medicating transactions necessary to combat the symptoms of the modern city. While web series are still considered the bottom of the screen food chain, High Maintenance is paving the way for quality content on a micro stage (and budget), and in a way, it celebrates the very opposite of what Futurism championed a century earlier.